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Dan Rawls
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Jeff Yarber

Bradley County, Tenn., commissioners want to take a closer look at county jail maintenance and staffing concerns.

In August, a Tennessee Corrections Institute inspector cited the jail for overcrowding, understaffing and a host of plumbing and mold problems. An anonymous sheriff's office employee recently accused Sheriff Eric Watson of misuse and mismanagement of funds and doctoring the jail staff books before a planned Dec. 7 re-certification. If cited maintenance and staffing problems have not been corrected by then, the Bradley County Jail could lose its certification.

On Monday, the commission voted 12-0 in favor of the body's Building and Land Committee's recommendation to request a prioritized list of maintenance needs from the Justice Center, which includes the jail. The list is due within six months.

Commissioner Dan Rawls called for sustained jail staffing as opposed to moving officers around to pass an inspection. He insisted he was not attacking the sheriff's department for arresting people who needed to be arrested.

"The likelihood of litigation based on understaffing can become tremendous and is a huge liability for the county and the taxpayers in the county," Rawls said.

He also read excerpts from an August 2010 jail inspection, which occurred at the tail end of Sheriff Tim Gobble's administration and cited similar problems with understaffing and overcrowding.

Despite having 92 corrections staff positions, only 60 of those positions actually involved inmate supervision, according to the 2010 TCI report. The rest of the corrections staff served as courtroom security, transport officers and administrative, maintenance and garage personnel. The inspector recommended reassigning the court officer and garage personnel — a total of eight positions — to the patrol budget and refilling the empty slots with actual jail officers.

The anonymous complaint cited similar numbers, with 64 correctional officers serving in the jail until early November. Since that time, it alleged, a handful of employees have been moved from other jobs to fill the gap.

Bradley County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. James Bradford said in an email on Monday the department now has 83 corrections officers. The department had 67 correction officers on Aug. 1, he said.

Commissioner Howard Thompson and the anonymous writer both said the jail is supposed to have 92 corrections personnel.

Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Yarber, who is chairman of the commission's Law Enforcement Committee, agreed for the need to review staffing concerns.

"I think you are correct and there is an issue there we need to look at," Yarber said. "As we look at it, I'm afraid that the only answer will be to tie dollars to it to hire people."

In other business, Bradford confirmed the sheriff's office has not concluded an internal affairs investigation into the death of inmate Ralph Nelms, 41, found hanging in a booking area cell on Sept. 18. Three days later, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office suspended three corrections officers pending the conclusion of the investigation: Sgt. Tim Boyd and deputies Gabe Black and Ron Reddish.

The sheriff's office investigation runs parallel to one launched by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. TBI routinely investigates inmate deaths.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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